GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Butch Thompson stood at the podium on Oct. 22, 2015 knowing he was getting this Auburn head coaching job because of his acumen for developing pitchers.
On Sunday afternoon with elimination staring at them in the Gainesville Super Regional, two of Thompson's prized pitching recruits from the 2017 class carried Auburn to a winner-take-all Game 3 situation. Tanner Burns fought through early command issues to allow just one run over five hits in a 97-pitch effort.
Burns has made 16 starts this season including two quality starts in the postseason. Against of the most dangerous lineups in the nation, Burns allowed just two extra-base hits and struck out three in six innings.
"To have somebody who hasn't really pitched in games like this, this is a Super Regional and the first time Auburn has been in a Super Regional in like what 20 years?" Auburn second baseman Luke Jarvis said.
When Burns issued a lead-off walk to open the seventh inning, Thompson and Auburn pitching coach Steve Smith knew immediately it was time to turn the baseball over to Cody Greenhill. And it was Burns who handed him the ball.
Greenhill, who would get his sixth win Sunday, gave up just two hits and a solo home run to Austin Langworthy in the ninth inning as his only damage all afternoon. The freshman from Russellville, who has garnered the nickname "The Bull" because of his aggressive nature out of the bullpen, made quality pitches to SEC Player of the Year Jonathan India and Gators cleanup hitter Wil Dalton to keep Florida off the scoreboard in the eighth and ninth innings.
Jarvis had the walk-off hit Sunday to clinch Auburn's 3-2 win and force a winner-take-all Game 3 of the Gainesville Super Regional at 8 p.m. on ESPN. However, it was the senior second baseman that was shaking his head when asked about the performance of the pair of freshmen Auburn trotted out to the mound.
"Tanner shows up and throws his butt off and Cody comes in and he's right behind him. It's unbelievable from two freshmen, especially being a fifth-year guy who has been a lot of players and a lot of freshmen and how the game can kind of get away from freshmen at times. It has been unbelievable. They are amazing."
Pitching in the pressure of an elimination game is nothing new to the former Mr. Baseball selection out of Decatur High School and the 6-1 right-hander had to induce two 5-4-3 double play balls to get out of early jams after four walks in the first four innings of work. In his freshman campaign at Auburn, Burns has already been asked to pitch on short rest and open Auburn's NCAA Raleigh Regional play inside a compressed bandbox ballpark last weekend.
"I talked about two and a half years ago, to steal from Skip Bertman, you have to pitch, pitch, dominate the routine play and timely hitting. We got two elite pitching performances (in this game), especially out of the starts and we got one today from our freshman Tanner Burns," Thompson said. "I thought the biggest key today was (Burns') ability to believe in his fastball, his intent, his ability to drive the ball in the strike zone and let the chips fall where they may."
After producing another quality start against the No. 1 team in the nation and getting a valued bullpen outing from Greenhill, Thompson was asked when he knew these pair of freshmen would be able to be relied on in game like Sunday's super regional. Thompson laughed at the question because the man considered to be one of the best pitching coaches in college baseball simply knew when he was sitting in a living room in Decatur and Russellville talking with both players before the 2017 Major League Baseball draft.
"Turning down multiple million dollars," Thompson said. "People with confidence can do that. They're pretty well thought of, but when you can walk away from it and say I want to be a professional ball-player but I want to go to Auburn first, that means they're betting on themselves, so you got to be able to have enough confidence to do that."
This article is written by Matt Stevens from The Montgomery Advertiser and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.